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The Sino-African Relations and the Shadow of an Empire

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

The relations between China and Africa have taken an interesting turn from a political/ideological one to an almost purely economic one. This will not only have an impact on the futures of Africa and China, but on global trade patterns as well.


The rising tensions between China and the United States, stoked by recent Chinese political and economic empowerment, often overshadows the appealing and yet long-lasting relationship that China has had with the African continent. Over the last few years, a debate has been raging about whether China’s relationship with the Africa continent diplomatic, or a form of “recolonization” of Africa by China. The goal of this article is to understand how and why the Sino-African relationship transitioned from being cooperative in the 1950s, to a purported form of “neocolonialism” in the late 2010s.

From my perspective, 1949 is the starting point of the Sino-African relationship, as it marked the end of China’s civil war and the beginning of the People’s Republic of China. At that same time, following World War II, many colonized nations gained independence, and the colonial powers withdrew their administrators from Africa.This context nurtured the birth of the “modern” Sino-African relationship, which had been until now, a relation based on cooperation, making the recent debate over this relationship surprising.

The goal of this article is not to cover 50 to 60 years of Sino-African relations in detail, but rather to focus on the historical steps which underlie the evolving nature of the relationship leading towards today’s debate. In that sense, we could ask ourselves the following question: since the birth of “modern” Sino-African relations in the 1950s, how have Chinese presence and policy in Africa lead to the recent accusations of Chinese “neo-colonialism”?

I argue that even though China built an effective partnership with Africa starting from the 1950s, its national interests and economic needs progressively transformed the nature of this relationship, turning cooperative efforts into a double-edged sword that feed accusations of a “neo-colonial” China.

Part I- The birth of “modern” Sino-African relations: between political and strategic interests (1949-1978)

On October 1st, 1949, after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) victory in the Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China. This coincided with the dawn of Africa’s independence movement and thus provided a unique opportunity for China to build a new and thriving relationship. The launch of the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ in 1949 -see picture below- appeared as a cornerstone in this quest. These principles, aimed at having mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, were appealing in Africa’s post-colonial setting.

A) The Bandung Conference and the rise of “modern” Sino-African relations

After the Korean War, Beijing established official contacts with African countries through its first diplomatic offensive at the Bandung Conference of 1955, which hosted 29 countries in Indonesia. This conference’s goal was to promote the Afro-Asian economic and cultural cooperation and to oppose colonialism or neocolonialism by any nation. This turned out to be an important step toward the Non-Aligned Movement and the creation of the Third World. In Bandung, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Zhou Enlai, met several African leaders, including Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. In 1956, Egypt was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with China, and Cairo served as the main base for Chinese operations on the continent. It was a unique opportunity for Beijing to meet the new countries of Asia and Africa, insist on anti-colonial points, and appeal to Asian-African unity. The conference spurred a sense of solidarity based on common past experiences- subjects of western colonialism- and built a new international force insisting on the mutual benefits of South-South cooperation.

Consequently, in the 1960s, China’s diplomatic exchange with Africa increased, resulting in the People’s Republic of China being recognized by 14 new African states between 1960 and 1965. Official ties with China consisted of four main categories: friendship treaties based on the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ -emphasizing solidarity and the development of economic and cultural relations-; cultural pacts -such as exchange of students, educators, reporters and other groups-; trade and payment agreements; and economic aid and technical assistance agreements.

B) China’s main interests behind its engagement in Africa in the context of Cold War

All the benevolent agreements aside, one might be wondering: what were Beijing’s interests behind its engagement in Africa? The first reason is an ideological one: the country that liberated its people must help countries not yet liberated, following a belief that China has an obligation to help the African people to achieve and defend their national independence. There are indeed a number of African countries (Algeria, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, etc) which won their independence after long years of armed struggle. China actively supported them by providing material help, including military aid. Nevertheless, apart from that, the interests were mainly strategic. First, without UN membership and lacking the United States’ recognition, Beijing realized that newly independent countries in the former colonial world were both natural allies and a potential solution to its legitimacy problems. Second, in the Cold War era, Africa was seen by China as a field for ideological competition between the United States, the Soviet Union, and the remaining European influences. This was strategically important in this context where China’s Africa policy now had to develop on two fronts: against the US imperialism and the Soviet revisionism. Lastly, this was important not only in terms of international recognition but also for China’s quest to lead the world socialist revolution and become leader of the Third World as expressed in Mao’s address, on February 22nd, in which he proclaimed: “We are the Third World.”

C) Case Study: The Tazara Railway Construction - A Double Reflection


“Most of the construction technology and clearing vehicles were Chinese imports, but Chinese workers themselves made up less than a third of the workforce.”

After the difficult period of the cultural revolution- mainly in 1966- the Chinese did not stop their overseas development in Africa and their most notable expression of cooperation was the construction of the TanZam railway between 1970 and 1975- linking Zambia’s rich copper belt (Zaikiri Mposhi) to the coastal port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. This project was bilateral, as it mobilized 13,500 Chinese and 38,000 African workers. It has been shown that this project was a direct request from the Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda, but more importantly, it could be seen as a relevant example of cooperation between China and the African continent. First, because China assembled a $405 million interest free loan for this project, representing the largest single offer of economic assistance granted to an African state by a communist country. Second, because it showed the Chinese government’s responsiveness to an African priority. On the other hand, it could be argued that this was also the illustration of the “real” Chinese interests in Africa, as China concentrated its aid specifically to a handful of countries: especially Tanzania. This was mainly because of its strategic location as it constituted an Indian Ocean gateway to mineral-rich southern Africa. In addition, for China this project was also a way to break diplomatic isolation on an international scale and build strategic friendship ties with Africa.

Thus, from the 1950s to the 1970s, China’s interests were mainly political and strategic. Their will was to become a country capable of rivalry with occidental powers. So, although the Sino-African agreements were aimed at mutual aid, China mainly provided political and ideological, rather than material support as they strived to become the “leader” of the Third World.

Part II- Deng Xiaoping, China’s Economic Acceleration, and the Evolution of Sino-African Relations (1978-2000s)

A) Economic shift in the Sino-African Relations under Deng Xiaoping (1978-1995)

When Deng Xiaoping brought China out of the Cultural Revolution’s difficulties and set the country to a “socialist” market economy, he famously said that ideology no longer mattered: “Black cat, white cat, as long as it catches mice it’s a good cat.” He also said that “to get rich is glorious.” The period going from 1978 to 1995 was crucial in terms of economic reforms and internationalization of Chinese companies, especially with Deng Xiaoping’s “Open Door Policy”- a nickname describing “the economic policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 to open up China to foreign businesses that wanted to invest in the country”- which included “going out” as well as “bringing in”. It constituted Chinese firms’ first tentative steps overseas in 1979. Through the 1980s, the government encouraged companies to bid on contracts, and form joint-ventures abroad. Between 1983-1984, prime minister Zhao Ziyang went to 11 African countries, where he did not mention “help” but “South-South cooperation”. We could argue that it was turn of phrase that set the impetus for a more intricate, everlasting economic partnership. In any case, this period constituted a turning point towards a more pragmatic approach, reposing on economic relations between China and Africa, and diminishing the role of ideological and political purposes in China’s foreign policy. That being said, we should keep in mind that between 1978 and 1982, the country’s reformers were intensely occupied with an ideological struggle. They had to persuade a nation that had barely survived the radicalism of Mao to begin a new transition that seemed to threaten all that the People’s Republic stood for.

B) Chinese pressure on Africa: economic neo-colonial practices?

From the 1980s to 1995, the Chinese economic system of cooperation with developing countries, and notably Africa, emphasized an increase in economic ties, a significant opening to the world market, and above all, China’s economic acceleration- as shown in the graph above. China's growing industries resulted in a rapidly expanding, and seemingly inexhaustible, demand for resources, especially those from Africa.

This can explain why China’s policy in Africa shifted progressively from political and ideological objectives to economic cooperation, indeed motivated by the internationalization of companies, but also by the access to natural resources- such as energetic resources like oil in Angola or Soudan; mineral products like copper in Zambia and DRC; and agricultural resources like cotton from West Africa. This economic circle increased the Chinese presence in Africa and nourished accusations of exploiting resources. From my point of view, this constitutes China’s first imperial pattern justifying the recent debate over the Sino-African relationship, especially since empires are built in a way that encourages economic relationship and commercial routes.

C) An expansion of military presence (1990 to the present)

A second and parallel imperial pattern to emerge is China’s increasing military presence in Africa. In fact, the Chinese military presence in Africa has increased since 1990 when China agreed to join in UN peace-keeping responsibilities. Even though missions were carefully handled- as China did not want to appear as a new colonialist power- we can notice that China currently has military alliances with 6 African states, 4 of which are major oil suppliers: Sudan, Algeria, Nigeria and Egypt. Thus, even if China’s influence remains limited compared to western powers like France, recent events can raise questions, such as the first military base built in Africa, in Djibouti, in 2017. Is it an imperial pattern? Can it also explain these recent accusations of neo-colonialism?


To conclude, we have argued- as shown in the graph above- that the nature of the relationship between China and Africa has changed considerably since the 1950s. Indeed, between the 1950s and the 1970s, China’s interests were mainly political and strategic since their goal was to become a developed nation capable of rivaling the occidental powers. However, China mainly provided political and ideological, rather than material support.

When Deng Xiaoping brought China out of the Cultural Revolution’s difficulties and set the country to a “socialist” market economy, ideology took a step back as China’s policy in Africa shifted progressively from political and ideological objectives to joint growth through economic cooperation. This shift was motivated by the internationalization of companies, as well as increasing access to natural resources. Thus, as time went China continued to benefit from unbridled access to African resources.

Hence, my point throughout this article has been that even though China built an effective partnership with Africa starting in the 1950s, China's national interests and economic needs progressively transformed the nature of their relationship, shifting from a cooperative to a “neo-colonial” dynamic.

Discussion Questions:

- From your perspective, could we qualify China as acting as a neo-colonial power in Africa?

- Whereas accusations mainly concern China’s “exploitation” of African resources, can we perceive its increasing military presence as an imperial pattern (especially with the establishment of its first military base in Africa in Djibouti)?

- Do you think that China’s intervention in Africa in the twentieth century was necessary to Africa’s development?

Primary sources:

Mao Zedong. On the Question of the Differentiation of the Three Worlds.February 22, 1974. Wilson Center.

Deng Xiaping, Excerpts From Chinese Address to U.N. Session on Raw Materials. April 12, 1974. The New York Times.

Secondary Sources:

Brautigam, Deborah. The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa. Oxford [England: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print

English Articles:

Leander Schneider. Review on The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa by Deborah Brautigam. African Studies Review, Vol. 55, No. 3 (DECEMBER 2012), pp. 193-195 Published by: Cambridge University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43904859

Chris Alden. Through African Eyes : Representations of China on the African continent. October 2006. London School of Economics.

George T. Yu. Sino-African Relations: A Survey. Asian Survey, Vol. 5, No. 7 (Jul., 1965), pp. 321-332 Published by: University of California Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2642291

Chris Alden & Cristina Alves (2008). History & Identity in the Construction of China's Africa Policy. Review of African Political Economy, 35:115, 43-58.

Gao Jinyuan. China and Africa: The Development of Relations over Many Centuries. - - African Affairs, Vol. 83, No. 331 (Apr., 1984), pp. 241-250. Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal African Society. http://www.jstor.org/stable/721561

Liao, Wen. “China's Black Cat, White Cat Diplomacy.” Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, 10 July 2009, foreignpolicy.com/2009/07/10/chinas-black-cat-white-cat-diplomacy/.

“Open Door Policy.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Door_Policy.

French Articles:

Jean-Raphaël Chaponnière. Un demi-siècle de relations Chine-Afrique. Évolution des analyses. Afrique contemporaine 2008/4 (n° 228), p. 35-48.

Philippe Hugon. La Chine en Afrique, néocolonialisme ou opportunités pour le développement ?. Revue internationale et stratégique 2008/4 (n° 72), p. 219-230.

François Bart. Chine et Afrique, une longue histoire, une nouvelle donne géographique. Les Cahiers d’Outre-Mer [En ligne], 253-254 | Janvier-Juin 2011, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2014, consulté le 30 septembre 2016. http://com.revues.org/6243

Thierry Vircoulon. La nouvelle question sino-africaine. Études 2007/11 (Tome 407), p. 451-462.

Roland Marchal. Chine-Afrique : une histoire ancienne. Africultures 2006/1 (n° 66), p. 23-31.


Les 55 Ans De Relations Sino-Africaines Vus Par Un Expert Des Questions Africaines. www.focac.org.

La Relation Chine-Afrique Critiquée Sur Le Continent Africain. ID4D, 21 Feb. 2018. Ideas4develoment.org/chine-afrique-relation/.

Les Chinois, Faiseurs De Villes Africaines.Accueil, 17 Jan. 2018. geoconfluences.ens-lyon.fr.

Louarn, Jean-Jacques. Chine-Afrique : Une Vieille Histoire D’amour- RFI. RFI Afrique, 4 Dec. 2015. http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20151203-chine-afrique-vieille-histoire-amour/


Tosinakegbejo. “PANCHSHEEL (FIVE PRINCIPLES OF PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE).” Tosinakegbejo, 13 Feb. 2016, tosinakegbejo.wordpress.com/2016/02/13/panchsheel-five-principles-of-peaceful-coexistence/

Haddad-Fonda, Kyle. “The Asian-African (Bandung) Conference: Fact and Fiction • BlackPast.” Redlining (1937- ) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed, 1 Feb. 2019, www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/perspectives-global-african-history/asian-african-bandung-conference-fact-and-fiction/

MaxShimba. “Rais Nyerere, Wachina Na Tazara.” JamiiForums, 19 June 2015, www.jamiiforums.com/threads/rais-nyerere-wachina-na-tazara.869634/

Hirst, Tomas, and Pieria. “A Brief History of China's Economic Growth.” World Economic Forum, www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/07/brief-history-of-china-economic-growth/

CSS Analyses in Security Policy No, 38, July 2008 (Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich).


CCTVNEWSbeijing. “China Footprint: Neo-Colonialism? What China Has Done in Africa.” YouTube, YouTube, 19 Sept. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OwAhCnR22g

By Martin Gilbert

Born in Paris where I spent most of my life, I am a French student at the Paris Institute of Political Sciences. Currently studying abroad for the academic year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I am trying to seize every opportunity to expand my knowledge in Geopolitics, Arabic, and Farsi, to pave the way for a career in international security. My dream is simple: work and live in a Middle Eastern country as soon as possible. I am also passionate about sports. I have the chance to be part of my university tennis team and I recently completing the LA marathon.